By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Teach Yourself French, Italian, Spanish!

Having grown up as a schoolboy in the British Empire before India became independent in 1947, I learnt excellent English very early in life.  Luckily India never achieved full independence from English, and that's why we Indians are able to  communicate so easily with the outside world today!

But other than English, foreign languages were not a popular field of study in India when I was a schoolboy or even a college student, and one always had to swim against strong currents of resistance even to learn French or Spanish, let alone Russian or Chinese (speaking only of the official languages of the United Nations).

I once wrote a light-hearted article in the evening paper in New Delhi, narrating how I learnt French in my college days. 

Evening News, New Delhi
2 June 1978
Lingua Italiana
A few weeks ago I had gone to see Mr. A.K. Damodaran, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who will be proceeding to Rome shortly as India's Ambassador to Italy.

I offered to give him a book which would teach him Italian within a month.  It was called Teach Yourself Italian, by Kathleen Speight, published by the English Universities Press.

"Oh, it's very nice of you to think of it!"  Mr. Damodaran said. "But I will be very busy winding up things here.  Thanks anyway!"

"But you have no idea how easy this book will make Italian, Sir!"  I insisted.  "In 15 days you can read a simple passage in the language, and within a month you can start reading Italian newspapers and magazines!"

"Oh, well, do send me the book then!"  Mr. Damodaran said.

I had bought the book in 1954, and how I discovered it is an interesting story.

In 1952 I had gone to the famous rows of second-hand bookshops in Moore Market in Madras, and asked for a French primer.

The first book I saw was a slim, attractive volume called Teach Yourself French, by Norman Scarlyn Wilson, published by the English Universities Press, London.
I took the book home, and believe me, within a few months I was reading the novels of Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo in original, and listening to the French news from London, Paris, Saigon and Brazzaville!

Since then I've bought innumerable and far more costly French text-books and grammars.  But while they've all been good refresher courses, I don't think any of them would have given me the kind of rapid insight which the simple EUP book did.  My first shot had been the best!

Two years later, I discovered that the EUP book Teach Yourself Italian was modelled exactly on Mr. Wilson's French.  I bought a copy, and it took me only a few weeks to start reading the Corriere della Sera (which I surprisingly found in a small library in Madras),  and tuning to Rome on the radio.

Incidentally, if any of my young readers are interested, the EUP Teach Yourself Spanish is also written by Mr. N.S. Wilson, on  the same pattern, and I can guarantee that it is the best introduction to Spanish one can find anywhere in the world.

Anyway, knowing that my old copy of the Italian book was unpresentable, I went hunting for a new one for Mr. Damodaran.  I trekked into every bookshop in Connaught Circus, but while there were rows and rows of Teach Yourself books, I couldn't find the one I wanted.  I found Teach Yourself Finnish, Swahili and even Esperanto  --  but not Teach Yourself Italian.

I wonder why India's Capital is so unkind to Italian!  Or could it be that Delhizens are so fond of the beautiful language that they've bought up every available volume?

And so I finally gave my battered copy to Mr. Damodaran.  I hope he will soon create a sensation in Roman circles with his splendid Italian!


Postscript :  2013 
Father and friends  

It so happened that the very next year (1979) I met Mr. Damodaran in Rome itself, and he said he was finding the book immensely useful.  The reason why all these forceful memories come flooding into my mind now is that Mr. Damodaran passed away recently.

By the way, I was introduced to Mr. Damodaran by my old friend S. Rangarajan (alias RJ), who had borrowed my precious book Teach Yourelf French and learnt that language so well that he was called Frenchie in the office of THE HINDU, where he was a Sub-Editor.  In fact, it was RJ who smuggled me into the THE HINDU's inner circle, but that's another saga!

RJ went on to learn Russian even better, well enough to land a job in the Indian Embassy in Moscow, where he edited a superb pictorial Russian language journal called India.  Having joined the External Affairs Ministry set-up, he became a good friend of Mr. Damodaran, as well as his son Ramu Damodaran, who also joined the Indian Foreign Service in due course, and is now a Deputy Director at the United Nations.
Now, I had seen the young Ramu sometimes in the Evening News office, where I used to go every week to hand over the latest edition of Delhiberations personally to the Editor, Mr. Gyan Singh.  He would be there for the same purpose, to hand over his brilliant column as the Campus Correspondent for the University of Delhi! 

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